Spartan viewings

 

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When I suggested to FW’s Editor Jim a cross border raid to cover back to back Spartans games on either side of the English and Scottish divide at Christmas, it was purely on the basis of the similar name, and the idea that in their respective lands both are high profile non league sides famed for cup exploits in particular. I never imagined that both clubs would be involved in festive social media shit storms, and in one case literally!   

Now I have to confess I strode into the well presented Croft Park, Blyth (capacity 4,435) oblivious to a certain billboard around the field. Unusually for a stadium I found myself drawn to the advertising hoardings, and with camera in hand I found myself taking photos of a quote from the ancient King of Sparta, a local poet and another board confirming Blyth Spartans are a registered Pena, thereby affiliated with Real Betis in Sevilla by virtue of similar kits I guess! But the controversial new advert passed me by, “Visit North Korea”!! If only I had perused the programme with greater pre-match enthusiasm, but capturing images for FW was higher on my list of things to do! Subsequent photos of the advert seen online and scrutiny of my photos would suggest that in the second half, Spennymoor fans had flags draped over the “intriguing” advert. I never once caught anyone commenting on it either, granted the game was absorbing, but the only non related chat seemed to be fretting about Newcastle’s plight at Liverpool! The billboard has had enough mileage on the social media airwaves and press, so getting into its relevance I will leave for you to investigate. The Edinburgh Spartans club, although just purely known as The Spartans, is a much more straightforward tale, something I witnessed first hand in their pre-Christmas home match with Gretna. In the 70th minute or so a routine free kick to Gretna was delayed until a chap appeared a minute or so later with a shovel. Fox-gate was open, poo removed, the game re-commenced. It was a remarkable first for me, and given Gretna had warmed up in that half, as well as 70 minutes of football raging by it, are they tell us that the ball never once encountered it, or a players boot?! If the answer is yes, astonishing!!   

A Boxing Day trip down the A1 from Edinburgh to Blyth on a relatively balmy winter’s day was a fine outing. Oddly I had been in Blyth once before for football, an early kick off of a Northern League Second Division tie, Blyth Town v Bedlington Terriers, which to this day remains the lowest ranked football match I have ever watched! Town’s little ground is on the edge of Blyth, so on that occasion I hadn’t discovered Blyth beach as Gateshead v Halifax was the Easter weekend afternoon diet that day! Gosh, what an astonishingly long stretch of sand there is too! Blyth is by no means a seaside holiday town, but even on Boxing Day it was full of walkers and people enjoying the great outdoors.

Croft Park has been home to Blyth Spartans for 110 years now and while it has been buffed up in the last decade or so, it has witnessed many a footballing upset as Blyth have long been one of the great FA Cup giant killers. Perhaps the best FA Cup run was back in ’77/78 where they beat Chesterfield at home, and Stoke City away at the Victoria Ground before holding Wrexham away and earning a replay. Had Wrexham not beaten Newcastle in the round before, it would have set up a North East derby, but as it was, the wave of enthusiasm for the replay saw the game moved to St James Park anyway, where nearly 42,000 saw Spartans narrowly lose to the Welsh side, who went on to play Arsenal in the next round. This magnificent cup run is forever captured on a detailed T-shirt available in the club shop! In 2008/09, having beaten Shrewsbury Town at home 3-2, they brought Bournemouth back to Blyth after a 0-0 draw on the south coast. This was Bournemouth of a different era, struggling in the fourth tier and they were beaten 1-0 at Croft Park, bringing a Premiership side to town for the first ever time in the shape of Blackburn Rovers. This time they played it at home, and only lost out 0-1, but they also missed out on another “potential” north east derby as Blackburn drew Sunderland in the next round! There most recent cup run of note was four years ago when they won away at nearby Hartlepool before drawing Birmingham at home. Another televised Croft Park classic ensued with the Brummies run out winners in a five goal thriller!

This National League North encounter with Spennymoor Town was a “derby” but I guess Spenny’s main “local” rivals are Darlington who were playing York that day. There was no police and minimal stewarding, just as it should be. A cracking match was to ebb and flow one way, then the other. Oddly, and by quirks of bankruptcy only, Spartans have never beaten Spennymoor Town (once Spennymoor United) and this was the sixth game between the two. They trotted off at the end having that record still hanging around their necks as the game ended 2-2, but as one lad said on his way out “a cracking game for a neutral”, it had a bit of everything, and thoroughly entertained the 1,133 in the stadium.  

There is no railway station in Blyth, so if you are relying on public transport, a bus from Newcastle will drop you at the bus station near the Shopping Centre and it is merely a 10 minute walk to the ground with an array of pubs on your way! If you want to enjoy the beach pre or post match, stick to the waterline by the harbour and the beach will present itself. Upon arrival at Croft Park, it certainly is a cracking non league ground, with a great history and the Blyth Spartans badge, is it better than The Spartans one?, you decide!

The Spartans FC are based in North Edinburgh, playing their games now at the relatively modern Ainslie Park Stadium (capacity 3,000, home since 2008), so named as the ground is on what once were the playing fields of a similarly named school that has long closed. The original setting up of The Spartans in 1951 was to provide a footballing outlet for ex-Edinburgh University students, who might have enjoyed playing for the Uni whilst studying, but once graduated they were disqualified from representing them. The club have gradually become more and more successful, having accumulated nine East of Scotland League titles, the first of which was in 1971/72 before joining the setting up of the new Lowland League, Scotland’s fifth tier jointly with the Highland League. They won that inaugural title of the new league in 2013/14, but that particular championship flag did not bring the promotion play off scenario that it now allows. That opportunity had to wait until the end of last season after winning the title on a tense last day, where an unexpected 0-0 draw with East Stirling might have seen The Spartans blow the title had it not been for Stirling University who shocked East Kilbride with a 2-0 win. Two games with Cove Rangers from the north ensued, but the second leg in Edinburgh was largely a non event as ambitious Cove had put four past them in the first game. However, local pride was restored with a narrow home win in the second leg.

The Spartans have a fabulous youth system with kids teams, coaching etc as well as a very successful women’s team. In this day and age it is pleasing to see kids in North Edinburgh walking around wearing Spartans tops and not big clubs shirts that are sadly viewed everywhere. They also have an offer to Hearts and Hibs fans who can buy a Spartans season ticket for half price if they have a season ticket for either of them! Indeed, this 29th December tussle was moved to a 2pm ko to allow those going to Easter Road for the second Edinburgh derby of the day the opportunity to do both!   

It is the Scottish Cup exploits in recent years that have been a feature of this ambitious club. In 2003/04, The Spartans were still playing across the road from the clubs present home at City Park, a real steep banked grassy terraced place it was too! Buckie were put to the sword first 6-1, then Alloa 5-3 after a 3-3 away draw, before another league scalp was claimed in Arbroath 4-1 away! That brought Premier League outfit Livingston to City Park, which had a twist of irony involved as Livingston had been Meadowbank Thistle, and prior to that Ferranti Thistle, who played their home games at City Park until 1974! A near capacity 3,000 saw the West Lothian side run out 4-0 winners but not before The Spartans had given them a scare or two! A couple of seasons later they were at it again, with Berwick Rangers, Lossiemouth and Queens Park all despatched before St Mirren came to City Park and they were given a very uncomfortable ride in a 0-0 draw. The Paisley men won the replay 3-0 but St Mirren is a name that keeps cropping up in modern Spartans history, most recently a 2-2 draw in the League Cup groups at New Love Street at the start of this campaign. Three years later Pollok (Junior side), Annan and Elgin were all beaten before going out to Airdrie. The most recent cup run in 2014/15 saw Clyde and Morton beaten before a last 16 time at home with Berwick Rangers which ended in a draw, thanks to a last gasp Spartans equaliser! By the time of the replay it was known that the winners would be away to Hibs in the quarter finals, and I found myself down at Shielfield amid an extraordinary number of away fans, but alas, a 1-0 loss ended the dream of a quarter final berth and a money spinning derby!

As it was, on derby day in Edinburgh on the last footballing Saturday of 2018, The Spartans were hosting North Edinburgh rivals Civil Service Strollers who have been celebrating 100 years as a club this season. Indeed, the day CSS hosted and beat East Kilbride, the publishers had produced a brochure for the centenary dinner that night but forgotten to print a programme! The Spartans have shipped too many points to be in the running to retain the title this term, and another two points walked away as the teams shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw in a game where the compact CSS hardly threatened the hosts goal, save for the “soft” penalty award that brought the equaliser. The Spartans had taken the lead inside the first minute, and have a reputation at home for late, late goals to win games but it wasn’t forthcoming despite some close squeaks.

The No. 19 or 8 bus will bring you from Edinburgh city centre to nearby Ainslie Park Stadium which is on the other side of an old railway line, that is a walkway now from Morrison’s Supermarket which is more prominently positioned on Ferry Road. Pubs in the area are non existent, a hotel at Crewe Toll will sell you a meal and beer, or you can come along early grab a drink and something to eat up the stairs in The Spartans Club room behind the goal.   

Blyth Spartans and The Spartans have played an occasional friendly as you might expect, but when came we introduce a European round robin feel to it, with Sparta Rotterdam and Sparta Prague completing the line up!!   

                 

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